Media Relations: When Numbers Lie


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You just placed a terrific story on the local news. Your boss asks you how many people saw it.

“Well, " you say, “The latest Nielsen ratings showed that 211,000 people watch the 11 o’clock news on Channel 7 each night. "

“Terrific, " your boss says. “Nice work. "

But do those numbers really mean anything? Raw rating and circulation numbers make it easy for PR professionals to track the effectiveness of their work, but do they tell the complete story?

Too many of us media relations types are under the influence of numbers devoid of context, and we may be doing our clients a disservice in the process.

Why? Because just ten percent of the audience matter.


Okay…that’s a bit of an overstatement. The other 90 percent do matter.

But the results of a recent survey make it clear that ten percent of Americans have a hugely disproportionate influence over what the other ninety percent do and buy. The study, released by the research firm NOP World, shows that the influentials persuade the rest of us to eat, drink, wear, like, dislike, watch, listen to, and read the things that they do.

Therefore, any organization seeking press attention needs that ten percent. Measuring media relations success based on raw rating and circulation numbers simply doesn’t work, since those numbers may be comprised exclusively of non-influentials.


The influentials get their news primarily from the written word. Of the four top mediums, they get their news in the following order: (1) Newspapers (2) Magazines (3) Radio and (4) Television.

The general public gets their news much differently, emphasizing broadcast. They prefer getting their news in this order: (1) Television (2) Newspapers (3) Radio and (4) Magazines.

Those findings have huge implications. They mean that although the general public may favor broadcast news, you’re not going to reach the influentials with that story on the 11 o’clock news. Suddenly, that story seen by 211,000 people seems less impressive.

Instead of chasing big numbers – the top rated radio station in town or the largest circulation newspaper, ask yourself who the people are who matter the most, and consider alternate ways of reaching them. Sometimes, the niche magazine that reaches only 7,000 people is better than landing a radio interview beamed into tens of thousands of homes.

Brad Phillips is the founder and president of Phillips Media Relations. He was formerly a journalist for ABC News and CNN, and headed the media relations department for the second largest environmental group in the world.

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